[28 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The current War on Terror offers some tenuous propositions at best, perhaps the most confusing being the President’s preemptive belief that we are “fighting them there to avoid fighting them here”. While such a stance is all well and good – and guaranteed to please the sanctimonious and security minded – it fails to fully address the notion of safety for our citizenry abroad. While Baghdad has become the main battlefield, radicals are still blowing up hotels, destroying bars and discotheques, and occasionally combating Uncle Sam on his own military turf. The 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1998 US Embassy disaster in Africa proves that, while 9/11 remains a monumental tragedy in the history of our nation, fanatical fundamentalists will continue to strike at those who their twisted dogma determines deserve it.
And when they do, here’s hoping that the maverick FBI team at the center of Peter Berg’s controversial action thriller The Kingdom are called to duty. In a world no longer clearly drawn along good guy/bad guy lines, this sensational adrenaline pumper plays by some mighty black and white rules. When an American oil facility in Saudi Arabia becomes the scene of a devastating terrorist attack, our nation’s number one law enforcement agency wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the secretive Arab country has a closed door policy when it comes to outsiders participating in crime scene scrutiny.
This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from gathering a team consisting of specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion to the Saudi embassy, the FBI is allowed in. They are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.
Brazen in its “all Muslims are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Middle Eastern culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the jingoism, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.
One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience used to only seeing the aftermath, not the actual incidents, is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge. Indeed, everything in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is set up to draw a straight line between patriotism and payoff.
Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking Arabs. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.
And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. Splitting location work between the United Arab Emirates and Arizona, Berg gets the stifling, hot desert atmosphere down perfectly, and when our leads have to kick it into Rambo mode, the firefights and fisticuffs are just outstanding. Indeed, the ample action and unswerving dedication to ‘Islam as iniquity’ plays right into a mindset fed up with ineffectual polices and gross government negligence.
It will be curious to see if any firestorm actually occurs – though it’s clear that the lack of subtlety probably demands one. After all, if Aladdin can get dragged through the pro-PC fire for its depiction of Arabs, what will a movie that makes all Saudis (except one) suspicious actually earn? Some will argue that entertainment is not reality, and that all villains are exaggerated for the sake of cinematic drama. But there is no buffer here, not even with Barhom’s Col. Al-Ghazi as a like minded Muslim. We are supposed to see his hardworking dedication and determination, and excuse all the extremism. Just as one terrorist fails to speak for an entire populace, the well-meaning and noble cop is in no way indicative of The Kingdom’s kind. Instead, it’s all flared nostrils and anti-American polemics in caustic, copious amounts.
Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.
All of this makes The Kingdom a very curious film. It is beyond thrilling at times and accurately chilling on more than one occasion. It draws on individual instincts so primal and enigmatic that it’s almost automatic in its joy circuits, and offers fictional justice in a circumstance that demands factual fairness for all. There is no excusing the abominations visited on the peaceful peoples of the world by religious-based vigilantes, especially when their target is so random and their rationale so suspect. But The Kingdom wants to correct that corollary by making everyone evil – except the USA, that is. While it’s great for morale, it seems slightly old fashioned for a movie. It’s not the only out of date premise here, which bodes well for your overall enjoyment, if not your overall understanding.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-kingdom-2007/